A few weeks ago I finished reading “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” by Richard Lyman Bushman. It was an excellent, albeit dense, read and my testimony of the mission and calling of Joseph Smith as the Prophet of the Restoration has been deepened and strengthened. But, another byproduct of reading it, along with the new gospel topic sections on lds.org, is a continued nuancing and change of perspective I have on prophets, both latter-day and ancient. You see, Rough Stone Rolling presents Joseph Smith in his entirety, warts and all. And seeing him in a more complete and human sense has led me to think about how we as a people view prophets and how perhaps we should re-evaluate things, perhaps at least culturally.
I think we as Mormons fall into a problem that I like to put, tongue in cheek, this way: Mormons and Catholics have the opposite problem. Catholic doctrine says the Pope is infallible, but no Catholic believes that; Mormon doctrine is that the Prophet is not infallible, but no Mormon believes that. You see, I think the view we have (at least I had) of prophets growing up is that they were nearly flawless paragons of all that is good and that they could in no way err in how they carry out their calling. But this perspective is both doctrinally wrong and dangerous.
First off, to say that a prophet is infallible is to place upon him a standard for his office that does not exist. I highly doubt there is a bishop or relief society president or stake president who would say they did everything perfectly in their calling; that is an impossible task for anyone, no matter where we are serving in the Church. To put that standard on the Prophet would not be fair to him; no one should be forced to live and serve in such a way. President Uchtdorf acknowledged the incorrectness of the idea that Church leaders, including the Prophet, are infallible and execute their callings perfectly:
And, to be perfectly frank, there have been times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes. There may have been things said or done that were not in harmony with our values, principles, or doctrine.
I suppose the Church would be perfect only if it were run by perfect beings. God is perfect, and His doctrine is pure. But He works through us—His imperfect children—and imperfect people make mistakes.
Elder B.H. Roberts also confirmed this: ““[The Prophet] claimed for himself no special sanctity, no faultless life, no perfection of character, no inerrancy for every word spoken by him. . . To claim perfection for him, or even unusual sanctity, would be to repudiate the revelations themselves which supply the evidence of his imperfections.” Comprehensive History of the Church, Vol. 2, p. 360.
We should hold our Prophets to high standards; we simply shouldn’t place such impossible requirements upon them.
Another problem with thinking that the Prophet is infallible is that it essentially turns him into a perfect being in our minds. We set him up to be something no one except Christ has been or can be. This, in a way, would put a limit on his agency as he would no longer be allowed to mess up, repent, and grow the way the rest of us do and how mortality is to be experienced. And this can be dangerous because when someone who has this view learns of the imperfections of a prophet, it can be earth shattering. Testimonies can be lost and people leave the Church because reality does not conform with what they believe it should be. I mean, let’s look at what we know about prophets and apostles, both ancient and latter-day: Moses killed a man and was not allowed to enter the Promised Land; Noah got drunk, stripped off his clothes, and then passed out; Peter denied Christ; Paul apparently consented to the killing of Stephen; Joseph Smith married a 14-year old; Brigham Young instituted a policy that denied many people the full blessings of the priesthood on grounds that do not appear to be from God. These are men of God but just that: men. Imperfect, mortal, biased, of-their-times men. We must let them be just that; to do otherwise is to simply set ourselves and them up for failure.
Now, I am sure some of those reading this are probably yelling President Woodruff’s oft-quoted statement about the Prophet not being allowed to lead the Church astray. I am not denying that and I don’t think anything I’ve written does. I do think we need rethink what he meant by that.
Let’s look in the scriptures. When has the Lord intervened to put a stop to the actions of someone? Two examples come immediately to mind for me: Paul on the road to Damascus and Alma the Younger and the Sons of Mosiah. While they were not prophets and apostles when the Lord intervened, I think it is still instructive: the Lord will not allow His servants to lead people away in such a way as to jeopardize their salvation. This does not mean mistakes cannot be made, that everything a prophet says or does is divinely inspired, or that he is infallible. What it means is that there is an upper-control limit to where the Lord allows the imperfections of His servants to go: they cannot and will not be allowed to put the salvation of people in jeopardy. For example, during the entire time period of the priesthood ban, everyone could still be baptized and receive the gift of the Holy Ghost; that was never denied anyone. So, while it can be argued that the priesthood ban was not inspired, it does not mean that the prophets from Brigham Young until Spencer W. Kimball were leading the Church astray. I personally believe that Brigham Young was a brilliant man, an inspired leader, and a wonderful prophet through whom the Lord revealed and taught many important and glorious truths. I also believe that he was a man of his time, with his own biases and attributes that reflected the thinking of the mid-19th century. That doesn’t make him less of a prophet or a fallen prophet or whatever; it simply makes him what he really was: a mortal human like you or me who was called to an important calling. And at no point do I believe he lead the Church astray, at least not how I understand what that means.
So, what are we to do? If the prophet is not infallible, how are we to know what is inspired and what is not? Well, here Brother Brigham has taught us the way: “I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self security. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not.” President J. Rueben Clark also taught this: “We can tell when the speakers are moved upon by the Holy Ghost only when we, ourselves, are moved upon by the Holy Ghost. In a way, this completely shifts the responsibility from them to us to determine when they so speak.” Church News, July 31, 1954.
We have been given the Holy Ghost to guide us and help us understand truth. If we want to know if what the prophet is saying or teaching is of God, we can simply ask God and learn of the truth of the matter through the inspiration of the Spirit. We cannot simply shut off our minds or our hearts and abdicate to our leaders our agency on the false belief that they are infallible; to do so would, in my opinion, frustrate the basic purposes of our mortal probation and ultimately lead to our own spiritual destruction.
So let us love and support the prophet and treat him with the respect and dignity he deserves; let us also treat him for who is: another one of God’s children trying his hardest to make it home and serve Heavenly Father to the best of his imperfect, mortal capacities. Let us follow Gods teachings as they come to us through prophet as they are confirmed to us by the Holy Ghost and know that they, while imperfect and not infallible, are simply trying to their best as they too, like us, “see through a glass, darkly” here in mortality.